Where The Sidewalk Ends

Sidewalk Labs rolls out its mobile tracking services in Portland

The skyline of Portland, Oregon. (Andrey Yachmenov/Unsplash)

Portland, Oregon, has partnered with Alphabet subsidiary Sidewalk Labs to roll out a new mobile data collection service, with the goal of tracking how people move through the city. Through Replica, Sidewalk Labs’ program that can aggregate de-identified location data from cellphones and turn it into a “digital map,” Portland will be able to more accurately track public transportation demand and the various ways in which people are getting around.

According to GeekWire, the year-long pilot, which has been somewhat under the radar until this point, will cost the city of Portland $457,000.

Replica works by first hoovering up de-identified location data from mobile apps, location data aggregators, and telecommunication companies, which sell location data. Using that information, combined with demographic data, Replica can create what Sidewalk Labs calls a “synthetic population” that can be used to model how real people move through any given area. The model is then calibrated against on-the-ground observations for accuracy. A new Replica model is generated every three months to show the impact of new policies and infrastructure on movement patterns.

The use of Replica in Portland will be overseen by TriMet, the agency that operates mass transit in the Portland metropolitan area, the Portland’s Bureau of Transportation, and the Portland Metro. Portland’s City Council approved the use of Replica last December, but the program won’t be put in place until Sidewalk Labs provides a model derived from Replica in July that passes the bar set by all three agencies.

The initial data aggregation for Replica has already begun, so that Sidewalk Labs can build its initial test population.

If the Replica program is approved, the city hopes to use the data provided to measure the usage of bike lanes and public transportation, what impact for-hire vehicles are having on traffic congestion, what areas of the city are underserved transportation-wise, and what facilities are needed in public parks. Because Replica recreates commuting paths, the city would be able to track work commutes as well as where people gather during their free time, providing urban planners with an estimate of what’s actually being used. Replica has the added advantage of providing this information without the need to build surveillance cameras or take surveys, as smartphones are ubiquitous.

Of course, privacy advocates have raised concerns over whether the data would truly be anonymous, and who would have access to it, concerns also raised over Sidewalk Labs’ Quayside development in Toronto. Portland has pledged that only the three aforementioned agencies would be able to use the information generated by Replica, but even they won’t have access to the entire dataset, only data returned via filtered queries.

Sidewalk Labs is reportedly looking to test Replica in Kansas City and Chicago as well.

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